Meet an eight-legged actor
If you think the Oscar nominees are good at pretending, wait till you hear what this octopus can do
At first, it's just a lump creeping across the sand. Then it speeds up. It flattens its body, pulling all eight arms in tight. Instead of jetting like an octopus, it moves its body in a wave. What is this thing? An octopus or a flatfish?Skip to next paragraph
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Several years ago, divers found this very strange octopus. It was the size of a child's bicycle tire and swam in the warm, tropical waters of Indonesia. It lived in a mucky area where few people had been scuba diving. Octopuses are famous for being able to change color and shape, but this one was special.
Divers said it could imitate a whole cast of other animals: flatfish, mantis shrimp, sea snakes, jellyfish, anemones, and even lionfish. They called it "the mimic octopus."
"When I first heard about the octopus," says Denis Tackett, an underwater photographer, "it sounded impossible. Then, "One day, I thought I had found a new type of mantis shrimp. I got closer and saw it was really the mimic octopus."
Divers showed scientists photos of the new octopus acting like other animals - many other animals. But figuring out the octopus's act was sometimes like looking for shapes in clouds. "Some people were getting really carried away," says Tom Tregenza, a biologist at the University of Leeds, in England. "We looked at photographs of the octopus and joked, 'This one is doing a double bed, and this one is doing a car stereo.' "
Scientists found it hard to believe that the octopus could look and act like so many other sea creatures. Some animals mimic other animals, but no creature imitates more than one. At least, that is what scientists used to think.
Why does one animal imitate another? Mimicry is a strategy some animals use to try to trick predators into leaving them alone. They do this by pretending to be a different animal - usually an animal the predator knows is dangerous or tastes bad.
For example, one particular beetle looks like a wasp. Birds don't like wasps because of their sting, so they won't often eat the tasty beetle because it looks and acts like a wasp. The beetle is the mimic, the wasp is the model, and the bird is the predator the mimic is trying to fool.
This strange new octopus raised many questions. Could it truly mimic many models? Was the mimic octopus nature's greatest actor?
Many divers were certain the octopus could mimic other sea creatures. Scientists needed a lot more than photographs to be convinced that the octopus was a true mimic, however. Two Australian biologists working with Dr. Tregenza traveled to Indonesia to see the octopus. So did American scientist Roger Hanlon. When the biologists saw the mimic octopus's home, they could guess why it might need to fool predators by pretending to be other animals.
Octopuses often live on reefs or rocky ocean bottoms, where there are plenty of hiding places. The mimic octopus lives on a plain of mud and sand. "There is nowhere to hide," Tregenza says. "You either tough it out on top, hoping a predator can't catch you, or you try to become so distasteful that if they do catch you, they can't eat you. Or you hide in the sand, which is what most animals do. But there is one other option: You're out, but you look like something else."
The mimic octopus's favorite model seems to be the flatfish. Dr. Hanlon and a team of volunteers videotaped the octopuses for six days. Divers went down in shifts from 4:30 a.m. until dark. "The octopus did the flatfish 800 times," Hanlon says. "It is beautiful mimicry. You think of how hard it is for that animal to flatten itself and get all eight arms to look like one body and wiggle the edges just like fins. It is a real work of art." (For a video, see Web links on facing page.)
Hanlon thinks the mimic octopus may imitate flatfish because the fish are very common and less likely to attract a predator than an octopus is. An octopus is "a soft, juicy hunk of protein that everything else out there wants to eat. So, you stay camouflaged when you are still or moving slowly. But what if you have to move faster? When they act like one of those flatfish, they don't look like an octopus anymore."
Tregenza's team claims that the mimic octopus can imitate at least three animals: flatfish, sea snakes, and lionfish. Hanlon says only flatfish mimicry has been proved conclusively, but that the octopus has more tricks. "When the octopus stops, it often gets into the exact shape and color of a sponge, a feather-duster worm, or a sea squirt," Hanlon says.